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Every day at 8:00 and 18:00, the sound of the Thai national anthem echoes across Thailand, broadcast on television and radio, resonating in private and public spaces.

Despite its familiarity in daily Thai life, few are aware of the anthem’s origins, which trace back to the 1932 Siamese revolution that transformed the country into a constitutional monarchy.

The anthem's history reveals the key national ideology of the then-ruling class regarding what the Thai national identity should represent.

However, the definition of the nation remains contested, as revealed during times of political dissent, when the anthem becomes an arena hosting differing definitions among factions of Thais.

The Contestation of National Identity

Students at Hatyaiwithayalai School displaying the three-finger salute during their morning assembly on 17 August 2020, a day after a mass protest in Bangkok.

In mid-August 2020, several videos appeared on social media, showing Thai students from various institutions across the country displaying the three-finger salute during the playing of the national anthem at their morning assembly while wearing white bows as symbols of resistance to dictatorship.

The student’s expression stirred discontent, leading to reports of teachers punishing them and, in certain cases, resulting in physical harassment and police inspections at schools.

For some older generation Thais, such as the author of a Thairath article, the student's actions were inappropriate and disrespectful toward the sacred position of the anthem, especially considering that the three-finger salute had been used in a larger political movement during the year that questioned “the institution that Thai people love and cherish”.

Charnvit Kasetsiri told BBC Thai that the students' three-finger salute movement, symbolizing freedom, equality, and fraternity, represents the younger generation's conception of a nation that emphasizes the people, contrasting with what Thongchai Winichakul describes as “Royal Nationalism.”

The dispute over appropriate conduct during the playing of the anthem extended beyond school grounds. In August 2020, the BTS and MRT train stations refrained from playing the national anthem at the regular hours, as an online movement planned to perform the three-finger salute on their platforms.

The action eventually grew to be included in larger pro-democracy protest gatherings, where protesters collectively performed the salute at protest sites. The protests were part of the larger 2020 pro-democracy movement, which erupted after Thailand’s Constitutional Court, backed by the junta, dissolved the recently formed Future Forward Party (FFP), banning its executive board members from politics for ten years.

The movement included demands for drafting a new constitution and reducing military power, but the most shocking of many Thais was a call for monarchy reform. Kanokrat Lertchoosakul notes that the demand was unprecedented in Thailand's history of the protest movement, as the monarchy has been considered untouchable.

To understand how the national anthem came to symbolize the Thai nation and to grasp the ideologies embedded in its music, lyrics, and associated formal conduct, it is essential to revisit its history in the political context following the 1932 revolution.

After the 1932 Revolution

Shortly before the revolution on June 24, 1932, when a group of civilians and military officers under the banner of the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon) plotted a coup d'état that overthrew the government of King Rama VII and transformed Siam from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, the composer of the national anthem, Phra Chenduriyang (Peter Feit), revealed in his autobiography that he was approached to compose music resembling the French anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Initially reluctant to complete the task, he eventually complied once the revolution ended.

Chenduriyang recalls being reprimanded by the Palace Minister under whom he worked, who said, “Do you know that our monarch still exists?” (รู้หรือไม่ว่าพระเจ้าแผ่นดินเรายังอยู่), following reports of the premiere of his music. According to research by Somsak Jeamteerasakul published in Thammasat Journal Vol. 27, a letter signed by a People’s Party representative under Phraya Manopakorn Nitithada was sent to the Palace Ministry, with the assurance that the music for the national anthem had not been finalized. The letter promised that if a national anthem were to be written, its lyrics would include a significant reference to the monarchy and receive royal approval before being proclaimed. However, what actually happened ignored this assurance.

The first lyrics paired with Phra Chenduriyang’s music were written by Khun Wichitmatra (Sa-nga Kanchanakhaphan), who detailed his writing process in his memoir. Despite never being officially proclaimed by the government, Somsak demonstrates with archival evidence how this version of the anthem was widely circulated and sung by the people. The popularity of this version of the anthem caused concern for the government because the last verse started with the phrase “seize the power”:





[Seize the power and uphold our freedom and independent rights

We will not forgive anyone who tramples on us

We will cleanse this Thai land with blood

To establish Siam to triumph and victory]

Piti Srisangnam shares in his talk that in 1933, the Minister of Education proclaimed a prohibition on singing the anthem, as the government found the phrase “seize the power” to be inappropriate. Piti suggests that the ban reflected concerns about the narrative of the People's Party's coup against King Rama VII's government in 1932.

On the other hand, Somsak argues that the ban on “seize the power” stemmed from the internal instability within the People's Party government. This occurred after the incident on June 20, 1933, when a faction led by Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena (Phahon) and Luang Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) staged a coup against Phraya Manopakorn's faction.

Apart from internal conflicts within the Party, there was also an ongoing struggle between the Party and pro-royalist forces, which culminated in the Boworadet Rebellion in 1933. It was not until the defeat of the rebellion and King Rama VII's departure from Siam in January 1934 for medical treatment in Europe that the music and lyrics of the national anthem were officially decided and proclaimed.

After the defeat of the 1933 Boworadet Rebellion

In August 1934, the government under Phahon proclaimed the official national anthem of Thailand, featuring Chenduriyang's music along with the revised lyrics by Wichitmatra, which was selected from the 1933 government lyrics contest. Somsak highlights that the promulgation of the national anthem never obtained royal approval despite the government's assurance to the Ministry of the Palace in 1932, reflecting the monarchy’s diminishing influence in Thailand’s political sphere at the time.

The first version of the Siamese National Anthem with lyrics by Khun Wichitmatra

In February 1936, the same government officially announced the "Regulations for Performing the Royal Anthem and the National Anthem,” which outlined the occasions for which each anthem should be performed. In brief, the royal anthem would be performed at royal events, while the national anthem would be performed at national events associated with the people, the nation, and the constitution. These regulations were reiterated in the Fine Arts Department’s 1940 policy on important national music.

Musicologist Parkorn Wangpaiboonkit remarks in his dissertation that while the policy supports celebrating the "idea of the monarch" through appropriate practices with the royal anthem, the separation of the two anthems in formal practice underscores the boundary where the glorification of the monarchy remains distinct from the government’s concept of the nation.

From Siam to Thailand

The turning point that impacted major changes to the national anthem occurred when the People’s Party government under Phibun proclaimed State Convention No. 1, changing the official name of the country and the signifier of people’s nationality from Siam to Thai.

Following this, the Government Public Relations Department announced another contest for the lyrics of the national anthem, which was claimed to be open to all people of Thai nationality regardless of age, gender, or knowledge level.

Somsak's examination of the entries in the 1939 contest, compared to those in 1933, reveals that the latter contest garnered significant public interest, receiving over 614 entries. Somsak further notes that a common attribute among the submitted works was the absence of any mention of the monarchy. Some contestants even submitted two versions of their work: one referencing the monarchy and another that did not.

The winning entry, written by Luang Saranupraphan (Nuan Pachinphayak) and submitted on behalf of the Thai Army, eventually became the official lyrics of the National Anthem and remains so to this day.

Somsak notes that the opening phrase “ประเทศไทยรวมเลือดเนื้อชาติเชื้อไทย” (literally “Thailand unites the flesh, blood, nation, and race of the Thais”) signifies the ethno-nationalist ideology of Phibun's government, a meaning that is not widely understood today. Additionally, Kampon Champaphan points out in his research published in Thammasat Journal Vol. 27 that the term “ประชารัฐ” in the lyrics, which specifies the people (ประชา)and the nation-state (รัฐ), confirms the distinction of the people’s nation from the nation of the monarchy (ราชารัฐ).

The National Anthem as an Entity to be Respected

Only a few months before the lyrics of the national anthem were finalized, the Phibun government proclaimed State Convention No. 4, mandating formal conduct for the national flag, national anthem, and royal anthem—positing these cultural entities as deserving of the respect and reverence of all Thai citizens. The proclamation states that when the national and royal anthems are performed, citizens attending the event should show respect in accordance with protocols and customary practice. However, the proclamation does not specify the details of such protocols and practices.

Not only do the music and lyrics of the national anthem embody the legacy of the People’s Party era, but the formal conduct associated with its performance persists to this day.

Students and members of the public displaying the three-finger salute while the National Anthem played during a protest at the Asoke BTS station on 20 October 2020. (Photo from Free Youth)

In certain spaces such as Thai schools, students are expected to stand still during their morning assembly when the national anthem is played. However, in other public places today, some people might stop and stand still upon hearing the national anthem, while others continue with their activities.

It is unclear whether people are aware of the history of these accepted behaviours, let alone the meaning implied in the anthem's lyrics.

Despite many other legacies of the People’s Party being erased from Thai consciousness and cultural venues, the national anthem and its associated code of conduct persist. Whether or not Thai people today recognize the Party's ideology associated with the music, lyrics, and conduct of the national anthem, it remains a symbol of Thai national identity, which will be defined, redefined, and contested based on changing political circumstances and the parties that define them.

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